Schools' race data vary widely

County information requested by the U.S. government gives details on black enrollment.

Published December 10, 2006

BROOKSVILLE - Like the rest of America, Hernando County this week found itself waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on the nagging question of race and the public schools.

In Washington, white parents are suing the big-city districts of Louisville and Seattle, after their children failed to gain admission to schools under busing plans designed to maintain racial diversity.

In Hernando, black parents and the local NAACP spoke up last spring when the district announced plans to abandon its own 41-year-old busing scheme to end racial segregation.

The federal Department of Education responded by telling the county to halt those plans, and supply it with reams of data on the racial composition of its schools.

That data, obtained by the St. Petersburg Times, shows that all schools are not alike in Hernando County when it comes to African-American representation.

While black students make up 6.6 percent of the 22,792-student district this year, their representation in individual schools varies widely - from 16.5 percent at Brooksville Elementary School to 1.91 percent at the Challenger K-8 magnet school and 1.68 at Gulf Coast Academy, a magnet school.

And at two schools for students with discipline problems, African-Americans are enrolled at much higher rates.

In Florida as in Washington, there are two sides to the question. Some assert that the days of Jim Crow segregation are over, and the time for race-based school assignments long gone. Gov. Jeb Bush was among those who filed a "friend of the court" brief urging the Supreme Court to overturn the Louisville and Seattle busing programs. Those cases were argued Monday before the court. But others fear a return to those days, and see the possibility that schools will revert to their unequal condition before the 1954 ruling of Brown vs. Board of Education abolished segregated public schools.

"What I really think is happening right now is a rebirth of racial segregation, in a subtle way," said Bishop Theodore Brown, parent liaison for the NAACP in Brooksville. "I'm speaking of Hernando County in particular."

Voluntary efforts

In the Hernando County of 1965, busing was a voluntary effort to redistribute African-American children from the segregated Moton School in South Brooksville to other schools on the east side of the county.

But officials agree the county likely would have been forced by court order to desegregate their schools - as the Pinellas and Hillsborough County schools were - had they not devised their own plan. In recent years, families have been able to "opt out" under the program, and some have done so. But others have said they want to keep the option, and the numbers of students being bused has varied - 194 in 2004, 226 in 2005, and 89 this fall. And many black families in South Brooksville are confused about their options, including the option of applying to magnet schools like Challenger or Chocachatti Elementary School, Brown said.

He criticized the effect of those schools - and the district's policy of building them as neighborhood schools grew overcrowded - on longtime black residents.

"Really, what they are doing is sucking the life from the schools in the area," he said, referring to the loss of talented students and teachers.

Brown said the district needs to try harder to recruit minority teachers for all schools, so African-American families will feel comfortable in looking beyond their neighborhood schools. But the School Board should consider adding more curriculum options and innovative programs at schools with higher black enrollments like Hernando High School, in an effort to attract talented white students and their influential parents, he said.

A new era

That's the way the magnet-school philosophy typically operates in other parts of the nation. Innovative programs are typically placed in low-income or under-performing schools that white families have fled, in an effort to attract them back and achieve diversity without the need for busing.

"Our district for some reason chose the opposite approach" in building new magnet schools, said James Knight, director of student services for the Hernando County School Board.

He said it was possible the district might consider re-zoning magnet schools to include some neighborhood children, or look at other approaches to make the district's schools more racially and economically diverse.

But Knight said the district would likely make no decisions until the Supreme Court rules and it hears from the federal Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.

And the federal government isn't saying much to anyone about its plans in Hernando County.

"About all we can say is that we're actively working with the Hernando County Schools to provide technical assistance in connection with Hernando's proposed student assignment plan," said DOE spokesman Jim Bradshaw.

J. Paul Carland, the School Board's attorney, said the district has heard little more than that.

"OCR hasn't really spoken either way," Carland said, recalling his attempts to glean their intent: "Are you going to give us guidance? What should we expect?"

And was it possible the Office of Civil Rights was itself waiting for the Supreme Court?

"That appears to be the case," Carland said.

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or 352 848-1431.